Tragedy Hits Hard, Faith Endures: Basketball Legend Kobe Bryant, practicing Catholic, dead at 41

Basketball superstar Kobe Bryant died Sunday in a helicopter crash in the mountains of Calabasas in Southern California.  He was flying from Orange County, California, where Bryant lives with his family. It crashed in foggy conditions, about 30 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, en route to Bryant’s youth basketball academy, near Calabasas, California, about 45 minutes to an hour west of Los Angeles.  The world-famous, former Los Angeles Lakers star was killed along with his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, the pilot, and 6 others in the Jan. 26 crash.

Bryant, 41, father of four, was Catholic.

Widely regarded as one of the greatest basketball players of all time, Kobe Bryant retired from the game in 2016 after a 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers.  Kobe was one of the youngest drafts ever to play for the NBA, having started his professional career at age 17. 

During his remarkable career the shooting guard won five NBA championships, a league MVP award, two scoring championships, and myriad other distinctions.

Kolbe attended Mass and received Holy Communion prior to boarding the helicopter that crashed

Retired NBA superstar and practicing Catholic Kobe Bryant and his daughter attended 7 a.m.Mass at Our Lady Queen of Angels parish in Newport Beach, CA,  just hours before they were killed in a helicopter crash along with seven others Sunday, confirmed Julie Hermes, a spokesperson for the parish. 

Hermes said that Vietnamese parochial vicar Father Anthony Vu was the principal celebrant at this Mass and that Kobe and his daughter sat, as their family usually does, at the back of the church to avoid disturbing or distracting other parishioners. Kobe and his daughter left to board the s-76 Sikorsky helicopter to Mamba Academy in Thousand Oaks for Gigi’s basketball game right after Mass.

“A friend texted me today to tell me that a friend of her’s saw #KobeBryant at #Catholic Mass this morning. Mass is the worship of God. Heaven is the worship of God. Go to Mass here so that you can worship God forever in heaven,” David Barnes, a Catholic priest and director of the Catholic Newman Center at Boston University, said in a tweet Sunday.

Sports journalist Vickie Vix also tweeted that the departed superstar regularly attended mass when he was in San Antonio, Texas.

“As a Catholic, I always admired the open display @kobebryant had for his faith. He attended Mass at St. Joseph’s in downtown San Antonio whenever in town. St. Joseph, Patron Saint of departing souls, pray for Kobe, and us all,” she wrote.

Faith was important to Kobe, even amid the world’s temptations

Beyond basketball, Bryant was a husband and a father who, in 2015, credited his Catholic faith with helping him move past a difficult period in his own life and the life of his family.

Bryant was raised in a Catholic family, and spent much of his childhood living in Italy. He married in 2001 at St. Edward’s the Confessor parish in Dana Point, CA (a beautiful beachside community in southern California, about an hour south of Los Angeles).

Accusations result in serious re-alignment with what matters most

In 2003, Bryant—who was 24 at the time—was arrested after being accused of raping a woman in a Colorado hotel room.

Bryant admitted a sexual encounter with the woman, but denied that he had committed sexual assault. When the allegation became public, Bryant lost sponsors and faced criminal charges, which were eventually dropped.

Bryant issued an apology to his accuser, with whom he also reached a settlement in a civil lawsuit.

“Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did. After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter,” Bryant said in his 2004 apology.

In 2015, the basketball player told GQ magazine that after the matter was resolved, he decided to shed some superficiality he felt he had built up in his public persona.

“What I came to understand, coming out of Colorado, is that I had to be me, in the place where I was at that moment,” he told the magazine.

The turning point

Bryant said it was a priest who helped him to make some important personal realizations during the ordeal.

Describing his fear of being sent to prison for a crime he believed he had not committed, Bryant told GQ that “The one thing that really helped me during that process—I’m Catholic, I grew up Catholic, my kids are Catholic—was talking to a priest.”

“It was actually kind of funny: He [the priest] looks at me and says, ’Did you do it?’ And I say, ’Of course not.’ Then he asks, ’Do you have a good lawyer?’ And I’m like, ’Uh, yeah, he’s phenomenal.’ So then he just said, ’Let it go. Move on. God’s not going to give you anything you can’t handle, and it’s in his hands now. This is something you can’t control. So let it go.’ And that was the turning point,” Bryant said.

Not a perfect journey, but persistence paid off

A 2004 decision to place deeper trust in God did not mean the basketball star’s life was thereafter without difficulties, or defined by virtue.

In 2011, Vanessa Bryant filed for divorce from Kobe, citing irreconcilable differences.

But Bryant said he decided not to give up on his marriage, and two years later, his wife withdrew her divorce petition.

“I’m not going to say our marriage is perfect, by any stretch of the imagination,” Bryant told GQ in 2015.

“We still fight, just like every married couple. But you know, my reputation as an athlete is that I’m extremely determined, and that I will work my ass off. How could I do that in my professional life if I wasn’t like that in my personal life, when it affects my kids? It wouldn’t make any sense.”


Bryant and his wife are regular parishioners at an Orange County, California, parish and after his death a number of posts on social media indicated he had been seen at Mass before what turned out to be a tragic last flight.

Singer Cristina Ballestero posted on Instagram Jan. 26 a story of her encounter with Bryant at Holy Family Cathedral in Orange, California at a weekday Mass.

“As we went up to communion, [Bryant] waited for me to go. If you grew up in the Catholic Church, you understand this is a respectful thing men do in church as a sign of respect to women. He said I have a beautiful voice.”

“His most inspiring trait was his decision to turn to his faith in God and receive God’s mercy and to be a better man after a regretful decision,” Ballestero added.

Kobe Bryant’s death was reported in the media before that of his daughter, Gianna. Before the death of Gianna Bryant was reported, Los Angeles’ Archbishop Jose Gomez tweeted a tribute to the elder Bryant.

May the souls of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, the pilot and of all nine aboard the crashed helicopter, through the Mercy of God, rest in peace. May Perpetual Light shine upon them, and may their families anchor ever deeper in the consolation of Christ and His Mother in their profound pain and grief. —ed. and staff, Catholic Business Journal




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